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Femtocells Can Help You Get a Better Cell Phone Signal at Home

Femtocells

A reader asks:

I recently moved apartments, and was startled to discover that I get little to no cell phone signal in my new pad, which obviously sucks. Calls drop or don't come through, and my phone chews through the battery. To make a call I have to go on my roof or across the street. Short of switching to a new service provider, which I don't want to do, I've read there are gadgets that may help, but I have no idea if they work. I don't know what to do, so just tell me what to get!

Dear Reader:

Pardon the pun, but your complaint about a lack of wireless signal seems to be in the air these days -- a Harris Interactive survey found that 67-percent of U.S. mobile owners complain they have reception problems at home. In the early days of cell phones, this lapse of coverage may have been more forgivable since service plans cost less and most of us primarily used landline phones for calls from home. That has obviously changed, and the good news is that service providers are belatedly and cautiously owning up to the failings by offering a solution: femtocells!

But first, in doing research, you've probably come across third-party signal boosters, which for some people may be a fine solution. The gist is that these devices -- which consist of an antenna, a signal amplifier and a transmitter/receiver -- grab weak wireless signals, and then boost and rebroadcast them across a small area, typically a couple thousand square feet. Popular devices include ZBoost's models, which work with phones from virtually all providers (except for Nextel and iDen phones) and cost around $300 or more. The issue with these (besides the fact that you're shelling out $300) is that they only work if you actually receive a signal near your abode in the first place. Beyond that, they also involve running cable through your house or apartment to an antenna. If that's not an issue, then they may be the solution you require.

If you aren't able to receive any signal at all or only have a very weak one, then you, my friend, may be in the market for a femtocell. Besides sounding very cool and futuristic, a femtocell is basically a personal cell phone tower the size of a Wi-Fi router that reroutes all of your cell calls through your broadband Internet connection -- sort of how VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) phones work. The catch (and there's always one, isn't there?) is that the femtocell rollout by wireless service providers is a bit haphazard at the moment, meaning that what is offered, available and affordable varies greatly by provider. To top it off, the plans are often confusing and contradictory.

So in general, staying true to form, the wireless providers are doing a terrible job of getting these things in their customers' hands. (Case in point: try finding a straightforward link to the following devices on any of their websites.) We also bristle at the idea that we have to pay extra for a provider's inability to get service to us, and the fact that their network is piggybacking off our broadband while charging us. We have an idea: how about distributing these for free, and paying customers to install them -- that way you get a nationwide coverage upgrade while saving billions! Genius!

But we digress. Here are your femtocell options for each of the major wireless providers.

AT&T 3G MicroCell, $150

Deftly responding to the surge of iPhone-related coverage complaints that began in 2007, AT&T quickly rolled out the MicroCell. In the spring of 2010. Hook it up to your broadband, set it near a window so that it can grab a GPS signal, let it fester for a while, and eventually you're golden. It lets up to four AT&T phones make calls simultaneously, and has coverage for up to 5,000 square feet. Depending on when and where you buy it, plus rebates and service upgrades, the retail price of $150 could be as low as $0. Unlike units by other providers, it only works with 3G phones, which is a bummer, but it covers data in addition to voice. Unfortunately, any usage of voice or data consumes minutes and data credits just like regular phone usage -- despite the fact that the MicroCell is using your broadband connection. AT&T also recommends using Wi-Fi for data whenever possible for a faster experience. We have read many accounts of users finding the initial installation of MicroCells to be less than foolproof, and, depending on your home's network setup, it may require some tech-support fiddling. In our experience, it works well in both rural and urban locations.

Sprint AIRAVE, $99 plus $5/month or free

Sprint AIRAVE
The bizarre skulduggery behind Sprint's AIRAVE femtocell line is, in our opinion, yet another Sprintian public relations fiasco. But before the fireworks, a little background: Sprint did a limited release of the first version of the AIRAVE several years ago, and, since then, has made it available for purchase, and continuously tinkered with its related service plans. The gist was that you had to pay a $5 monthly fee on top of $100 for the unit itself. In the past year, though, a growing tide of anecdotal evidence shows that Sprint will send certain customers a unit for free, sometimes with waived monthly service charges as well -- but sometimes not. A call to Sprint's PR people didn't make it much clearer. Basically, we can assume that it boils down to the customer, and is handled strictly on a case-by-case basis. It seems that, if a customer's account is in good standing, if they truly have awful coverage (maybe marked by significant roaming fees each month) and if they're pushy enough to get past tier 1 tech support to get to account retention (read: you threaten to dump them), a customer may have a good shot at a free unit.

Now, that was for the first-gen AIRAVE, which supports up to three callers at a time and works with any Sprint phone, but doesn't do data. However, Sprint has also begun trickling out a new AIRAVE, a 3G version (unlike the first 1X CDMA version) that handles six callers, does 3G data and is free. Yes, bizarrely, the AIRAVE Access Point is completely free, but only to certain customers. The rest of us can't even buy one in a store. Our Sprint source says no plans have been announced to make it widely available, which is often another way of saying "stay tuned." For now, you can either settle for a crippled AIRAVE for $99 and around $5 a month, bargain to get it for free, or hassle the customer service rep enough that they'll hook you up with the 3G version.


T-Mobile

As of press time, T-Mobile doesn't offer a femtocell option, and hasn't announced plans for one. So if you want to keep your T-Mobile service, perhaps consider forwarding your cell calls to a landline or VoIP number when you're at home. (Sorry if that's lame. Blame T-Mobile, not us).

Verizon Network Extender, $249

Verizon Network Extender
Joining Sprint, Verizon's Network Extender is a 1X CDMA (not 3G) signal booster that doesn't handle data, and costs a whopping $250 clams. (That's no surprise since it's the same rebadged Samsung device on a different network.) It works with all Verizon phones, can handle three at a time, is easy to install, and, by all accounts, works well, covering up to 5,000 square feet. Interestingly, Verizon is pulling a slight fast one; unlike the other femtocells, which limit access to 50 or so designated users, Verizon states that if other Verizon consumers wander by and can't get cell access either, they can hop onto your network (though you'll still have priority over them). Talk about expanding your network cheaply!

Verizon did demo a 3G/EVDO version at CES this year. (Perhaps the same one Sprint is surreptitiously distributing?) As of right now, however, Verizon hasn't made any announcements about availability or pricing.

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Tags: cellphones, columns, features, femtocell, femtocells, justtellmewhattoget, network extender, NetworkExtender, signal booster, SignalBooster

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